"One day you will come to a fork in the road. And you're going to have to make a decision about what direction you want to go."
[Boyd] raised his hand and pointed.
"If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments."
Then Boyd raised the other hand and pointed another direction.
"Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself.
If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors.
But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference."
He paused and stared.
"To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?"
-Lt.Col John Boyd
“He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives.” -Lt. Colonel John Boyd
On March 20, 1997 a crowd gathered in the Old Post Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery for the memorial service of Colonel John Richard Boyd, United States Air Force, retired.
A chilly rain and cloudy skies saw a crowd bundled in winter coats hurrying into the chapel.
Full military honors including an honor guard, band, rifle squad, and flag-draped caisson drawn by six gray horses were provided.
A small crowd packed inside the chapel watched as a Chaplain opened the service and then one by one, Boyd’s oldest friends walked to the front of the chapel to recount stories of his life.
Boyd’s career spanned the last half of the twentieth century: he served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and his ideas greatly influenced the Gulf War in 1991.
Former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak said in the aftermath of the Gulf War that “The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he’d commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert.”
In the late 1950’s, Boyd was the best fighter pilot in America and possibly the world. He was called “Forty-Second Boyd” because he could defeat any opponent in simulated air-to-air combat in less than forty seconds.
He was more than just a great stick-and-rudder man, though; he was a strategist. He had developed Energy Maneuverability (E-M) Theory in his spare time in the 60’s. E-M Theory would revolutionize the way air-to-air combat was taught and fighter planes were designed around the world.
In the early 1970s, he was the spiritual leader of the Military Reform Movement, a guerrilla movement within the military which sought to reform the cultural of careerism and waste in the armed forces.
In the late 70s, he retired from the Air Force and went into a self-imposed exile studying philosophy, science, military history, psychology, and a dozen other seemingly unrelated fields.
Moving from warrior to intellectual, he worked to synthesize what he learned from all these domains to answer the question: How do individuals and organizations win in an uncertain environment?
The ultimate result of this synthesis was the OODA Loop.
The OODA in OODA Loop is an acronym that stands for:
It is a description of a process that you are already doing every minute of every day.
- You observe that you are hungry. You orient by remembering there is a Chick-fil-a down the street and it’s before 11am
- which means they are still serving chicken biscuits.
- You decide to go to Chick-Fil-A .
- You act by going to Chick-fil-a and eating a delicious chicken biscuit (or maybe two, why not, you’re already there).
The OODA loop is often seen as a decision making model, but can be more accurately described as a model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation.
We discuss the importance of OODA in depth in the following video.
Boyd’s work did what few works ever do: it changed the world.
However, much of what he did was either highly classified or not written down. Because the military is an oral culture, he left very few published papers, making him difficult for academics to study.
Yet, over the last two decades, students of his work in the military have gradually moved wider into business, sports, science and dozens of other fields.
Their ideas challenge some of our most fundamental assumptions about how to win.
On a grassy slope, the cortege halted around grave site number 3,660. A Marine colonel, wearing the ribbons and decorations of a man who had spent a career fighting around the world, took a Marine Corps insignia, the eagle globe and anchor, from his pocket.
He walked out of the crowd, knelt, and placed the insignia near the urn containing Boyd’s ashes.
The young Marine lieutenants in the crowd snapped to attention.
Placing the Marine Corps insignia on a grave is the highest honor a marine can bestow. It is rarely seen even at the funerals of decorated combat marines. This was likely the first time in history an Air Force pilot ever received the honor.1
Why is the OODA loop so important?
*Featured post photo image: Portrait of John Boyd as a Captain or Major flying as a wingman (U.S. Government photo via Wikimedia Commons, public domain); OODA Loop graphic from Air University (public domain) Image Composed by Tom Galvin